Is It Live Or Is It Memorex?

The Church of Scotland was recently convulsed by a controversy over the call of a practicing homosexual minister.1 According to a recent news report it appears that the Church of Scotland has more trouble with her ministry in her consideration of virtual pastoring.2 One suspects this change in her approach to ministry will not generate the same level of discontent as the controversy over the call of Scott Rennie, but perhaps it should.

In the ’70s there was a recording medium known as cassette tapes. In a commercial, the great Ella Fitzgerald used to hit a note that would break a glass. The hook for the commercial was, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?”3 The conceit of the commercial was that the reproduction was so faithful, there was so little loss of signal and so little distortion, that the live Ella and the tape were interchangeable. However true that might have been for audio tape, it is not true for pastoral ministry (or for training pastors).

The cassette (and before that, reel-to-reel) recordings were magnetic analogs of reality, but they were not reality. Despite the illusion created by the advent of CDs and digital recording, we learned in the ’80s that virtual reality is just that: virtual. It is still not real. A digital recording is clean, clear, and crisp (and some still say “cold”), but it is still not the actual voice. Max Headroom was not really able to capture the reporter’s soul.4 He became another thing. So too with virtual or distance ministry.

According to the story, there “are presently an estimated 190 full-time vacancies for clergy across Scotland, which has a population of 5.1 million. Under the proposal, churches would be linked by technology similar to that used in video conferencing.”5 A minister would be in one of the congregations in the Orkney Presbytery and minister by video link to the others. My concern is not that there is magic or power in a local voice as opposed to a digital voice. My concern is more profound. Consider the words “digital presence.” This is an oxymoron. One is either present or he is not. Though locally, bodily absent from us, our Lord Jesus is able to be present with us by virtue of his Holy Spirit; but digital technology is not the Holy Spirit. Your pastor is not actually with you when he is in another congregation ministering. Watching a minister who is conducting his ministry in another congregation and then pretending that he is with you is ecclesiastical voyeurism. It is creepy.

Second, and even more fundamentally, is the problem which creates the perceived need for things like “virtual” pastors (another oxymoron—if a wolf approaches the flock and the security guard, on another island, sees it on the high-def camera, can he really protect the flock?). Ministerial shortages were understandable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For one thing, confessional Protestant ministers were persecuted by Rome or by civil authorities (especially in Scotland!). Martyrdom reduces the number of pastors and creates disincentives for entering the ministry.

During the baby-boom (1945–64) there was a surplus of ministers in most places in the West. In the post-Covid era, in the age of the Millennials and Gen Z, the ministerial shortage is back and churches in the West are wrestling with the question of virtual ministry. The United Reformed Churches in North America addressed this issue at their most recent Synod (Escondido, June 17–21, 2024).6

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it seemed clever and even hip to make the church “relevant” and “modern.” The recent history of the mainline churches has shown repeatedly the consequence of these moves. Scholars in those very churches have documented repeatedly what is happening. The Church of Scotland is just a symbol of what is happening to mainline churches across the globe. They are all committing real (not virtual) suicide. They are doing it theologically by abandoning the biblical and historic confession of the Reformed churches, by marginalizing the authority of God’s Word (denying its reliability and truthfulness), by exchanging the glorious gospel of Christ for sweetly reasonable rationalism and moralism (via pietism and broad evangelicalism). Still, they continue.

Memorex might have been able to break a glass, but it still was not Ella Fitzgerald. A digital link cannot baptize (a “virtual” baptism is gnostic), administer holy communion (ditto), make a hospital call, or bury you. It takes a real, live person, in person, to do those things. The ministry cannot be conducted from a distance. Here is yet another opportunity for those in positions of leadership in the mainline churches in Scotland and in the USA to stop and consider one more time what they are doing to the church. An acquaintance once compared his ministry in the mainline to that of the Old Testament prophets. Well, eventually the Lord stopped sending prophets to his rebellious people. Is that the analogy the mainliners really want to follow?


  1. See R. Scott Clark, “Trueman: Being Presbyterian in the Church of Scotland.”
  2. See Trevor Grundy, “Scottish church to consider ‘virtual ministers’ to stem shortages,” Ecumenical News International, May 20, 2009.
  3. Memorex was a brand of cassette tapes.
  4. Max Headroom was a creative 1987 television show about a virtual man.
  5. Grundy, “Scottish church.”
  6. The committee report on digital worship begins on p. 260 of the Provisional Agenda. That report was received by Synod as amended.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editors Note: This was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2009.


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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Good points Dr. Scott! But what should the Church do when there are no Reformed Seminaries in other countries that have emerging Reformed churches? Like huge swaths of Latin America? I have corresponded with some in Latin America that ask if the church I attend (Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)) can send professors to help train their ministers that have at best a diploma from a Seminary that provided training via correspondence. The Reformed Seminary in Miami, MINTS, gives such distance training as well. Is there an area where such supplements are necessary? I recall the First Book of Discipline wherein Superintendents were set up to help oversee congregations that did not have local officers. As the Church in Scotland developed these Superintendents gradually gave way to local ministers & elders and eventually to local Sessions/Consistories (as can be seen in the Second Book of Discipline).

    Now I can see a country as developed as Scotland not needing such a mechanism, but would your critique remain for undeveloped (as in little to no Reformed presence of Seminaries) nations?

    Thank you!

    BTW, our Spanish site has been totally renovated and the link you have to the Spanish translation of Calvin’s Necessities will need to be updated:

    In Christ,
    Edgar Ibarra

    • Hi Edgar,

      The link is updated.

      My solution to this problem is to do what the NKST in Nigeria has done. They have sent pastors to WSC and elsewhere for advanced training. Those pastors then return to Nigeria to teach in their seminaries. They train pastors. This takes time and it may seem inefficient but I think it’s the wisest way to proceed over the long run.

      • Dr Scott,

        I know that just about every Seminary in the USA receives students from other nations, including non-English speaking nations. I also understand that many desire that the foreign students return to their home country and carry the Reformed banner there and also train other men for ministry.

        However, I wonder are the Seminaries doing their part to prepare such men to actually go back and train other men? Do they have a “Train the Trainer” program for such students? We all know that being trained or taught is one thing, but doing the teaching is quite another. A professor needs to know much more and have certain training to react to different questions, comments, and personalities. There are other aspects that a professor is trained in that a student preparing for a M.Div. or Th.M. may not be trained in. Then to send such to go to train without being taught certain skills on how to go about doing it may not yield desirable results.

        That is something that all Seminaries, I think, should think about when sending foreign students back and hoping/expecting that they will train their countrymen in the ministry; especially nations lacking necessary resources to do even the basics…like books and materials to teach Greek, Hebrew, Systematics & etc. Maybe a semester of “Train the Trainer” or “Teach the Teacher” for such students may be very helpful to help them be better teachers when they return home.

        For Christ’s Kingdom,

        • Edgar,

          I think that’s what we’re trying to do. We’ve sent four men to Nigeria to teach in the seminary in Mkar. Of those, one was killed in a traffic accident and one just arrived back home. One is teaching and one is in pastoral ministry. What we lack is financial support. We are small-medium-sized non-profit. We need support in order to fund international students (or rather they need funding in order to come). If the funding is present we have the capacity, will, and desire to train many more men to go back either for further training or to begin teaching right away.

  2. “The Church of Scotland is just a symbol of what is happening to mainline churches across the globe. They’re all committing real (not virtual) suicide. They’re doing it theologically by abandoning the biblical and historic confession of the Reformed churches, by marginalizing the authority of God’s Word (by denying its reliability and truthfulness), by exchanging the glorious gospel of Christ for sweetly reasonable rationalism and moralism (via pietism and broad evangelicalism). Still they continue.”

    It’s definitely the elephant in the room. My denomination is dying. We’ve got more churches than ministers and that will get worse in 2012 when there’s a mass wave of retirements. For the last twenty years there has been the obligatory shuffling of the deckchairs on the Titanic. Still, we hear that our “diverse” and “flexible” denomination is worth keeping. We then sign up to every new fad going and still wonder why the church is declining. (I’m praying that the denominational leaders don’t pick up on this story.)
    No-one talks about the Gospel. No-one calls us back to the confessions. Liberals attack the faith, evangelicals run after charismatic and emergent movements and the ordinary sheep in the pews are dying.
    I’m only a year into ordained ministry. I’m worried about the future but I’m not sure what to do in the present.
    I’m going to faithfully preach the Word and shepherd the flock and trust that our Sovereign Lord will accomplish his purposes.

    • Hi Phil,

      I appreciate your honesty. I heartily believe that those, who still believe the faith, who find themselves in the mainline/liberal denominations need to face up to what is happening. As a sideline and an outsider to the mainline I’m continually surprised by, what seems to me to be, a relative lack of awareness by believers in the mainline churches as to what is happening around them. The kettle is heating up and they do not seem to understand that they are the frogs. It seems to be true here.

      I do feel for those poor souls in the mainline who haven’t heard the gospel much (if ever) for decades now. A few of our students have had opportunity to preach in mainline congregations and they’re told, “We’ve not heard that for 40-50 years.” If confessional ministers could get into the mainline, there might be hope for renewal, but typically, in the states, “renewal” means charismatic piety or adaptation of the latest ecumenical liturgical fad.

      As someone once said, “Continue your ministry. Preach the Word when it is fashionable and when it is not.” Love your flock. Leave the results to the Spirit but keep a watchful eye to developments round you. The Exodus also comes to mind, “And when you eat, tuck up your tunic….” Perhaps that’s a good model too?

      • Thanks Dr. Clark. Your students’ experience echoes with mine.

        You quoted the text that keeps me going. That and Acts 20:28.

        • I found the Episcopal Church’s recent House of Bishops vote encouraging. They amended their canons to protect access to “ordination, deployment, and canonical residency” for those clergy who hold to the traditional view of marriage. This seems to be more or less opposite to what the PCUSA is currently trying to enshrine.

          Even if this Episcopal Church vote is driven only by the basest motives (give place to the conservatives or die), it shows that we may have passed peak apostasy in some of the mainlines. I really think that’s possible. Unreality can only continue for so long, and those with no interest in God ultimately either die out (having generated no replacements) or tire of the fake pomp and circumstance they have erected and move on to a different hobby. I think the revolution may be quietly afoot.

  3. If the mainline denomination you’re a part of won’t reform, barring a miracle from God, then give serious thought to having your congregation pray and vote on whether to secede from the apostate denomination.


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